A Trove of Memorabilia

Lobbyist David Weiman and the Art of the Collector

Posted June 26, 2007 at 6:22pm

Lobbyist David Weiman still remembers that steamy summer night a couple of years ago during a meet-and-greet at his Capitol Hill home for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Outside, the rain was pounding down.

“The moment Sen. Alexander said, ‘Hi, I’m…’ the buzzer went off and he was called back to the floor. … We barely got him to the car. He was drenched,” Weiman says.

Fifteen minutes later, Weiman got an unexpected call. “It’s the Senator on the phone saying, ‘Is everybody there? I’ll come back.’”

So why was the busy Tennessee Senator in such a hurry to return?

“The house,” Weiman shoots back without missing a beat. “Sen. Alexander loves history.”

Pay a visit to the three-story, brick Victorian row house in question and you’ll quickly see why.

Weiman, 59, and his wife, Nancy, a former champion synchronized swimmer who recently was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, have turned their 3,000-square-foot home on Maryland Avenue Northeast into a veritable U.S. history museum. Nearly every inch is crammed with remnants mainly from late 19th and early 20th century life. There are low-brow items such as card games, sewing kits and noisemakers, and also more rarefied objects like an ornate bronze shield from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair or a bronze version of the first medal authorized by Congress.

Strolling through the rooms is like wandering around a life-size political curio cabinet.

The couple started collecting in earnest after buying the house in mid-1993.

“It was sort of like, ‘Oh, what are we going to do with the place?’” Weiman recalls, noting that he’d long been acquiring original political cartoons, often related to issues he’s worked on.

“I put [the cartoons] on the hooks [in the stairwell] and a theme was born,” he says.

Since then, the collection has grown — and grown.

Today, Weiman estimates the house holds 5,000 to 10,000 artifacts in some 100 different mediums. The items are plucked from flea markets and thrift stores or acquired through dealers and high-end auction houses. They typically don’t collect “anything beyond 1950 or post-World War II because the art stinks,” he says.

Weiman, a California native who has run a one-man lobbying shop since July 4, 1976, was just 24 when he got in a Volkswagen Beetle and headed east to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1971 en route to intern for Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), founder of Earth Day.

Over the years, Weiman, a self-described “aging Earth Day baby,” has been involved in “nearly every flavor of resource politics in the West and in the Pacific.” He’s represented the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association in its fight against the MX missile in the early 1980s, and the Audubon Society when it took on the Garrison Diversion, a massive water project in North Dakota. His current clients include “two water districts in Southern California” for which he’s championing the promotion of recycled water and “green energy from manure.”

“We call it cow power,” chuckles Weiman, shifting into full-on, K Street pitch mode. “It’s actually very cool. How do you take a cost and a pollutant and flip it into an asset and a benefit?”

Weiman says the house helps to transcend the garden-variety partisanship so common on the Washington, D.C., landscape.

“Everybody that comes here … they’re bit players in a one-act, long-running play called democracy,” he asserts, adding that he’s hosted working lunches and dinners, receptions and fundraisers at the house. “I’ve had very serious discussions of issues, oftentimes with people on the other side. You know, in this setting … the barriers come down and people are a little more thoughtful and sometimes more forthcoming.”

Few, if any, lobbyists in town could claim to work in more storied surroundings. His office, which is located on the third floor, is practically dripping with political-historical memorabilia. His “working desk” is a Wooton, as in the 19th-century, cabinet-style “king of desks,” a model favored by everyone from Ulysses S. Grant to John D. Rockefeller. The inside of Weiman’s office closet door is completely covered in political buttons. Among the offerings: “Win with Wallace,” “Go with Goldwater” and “Re-elect Dick Cheney,” from the vice president’s days as a Wyoming Congressman. A smaller copy of Gilbert Stuart’s famous full-length portrait of George Washington hangs on one wall. Rare Congressional medals mingle with a Theodore Roosevelt bust and even a few glamour shots of Nancy. (Nancy, by the way, doesn’t approve of the turn-of-the century war club he picked up in Hawaii, Weiman points out. “This has notches,” he laughs.)

Weiman is quick to note that he and Nancy can’t claim credit for all of the house’s historical or quirky touches. A small statue of a naked boy holding a pineapple in the front yard was there when they bought the place. So was the bronze dining room chandelier (the match to which hangs in the Smithsonian Castle), and the outdoor ironwork and indoor shutters salvaged from the old Willard Hotel, the legendary birthplace of the term “lobbyist.”

Spend some time with Weiman, a jovial, talkative man who is profoundly passionate about U.S. history and government — as an eighth-grader in San Francisco he subscribed to the Congressional Record — and snippets of what one imagines is the repressed history teacher within him spill out. (He once entertained some 90 schoolchildren at the house with an impromptu lesson on government and citizenship.)

Weiman picks up a 1920 bronze memorial plaque of Theodore Roosevelt by the prominent American sculptor James Earle Fraser — who designed the Indian Head “Buffalo” nickel in 1913 — and deepening his voice, begins to recite the purported Roosevelt quote inscribed on the plaque. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” he declares in an admirable imitation of the former Rough Rider. “You can almost hear Teddy Roosevelt saying it,” observes Weiman. “But nobody can find the source, and they’ve looked for years.”

What Weiman considers the centerpiece of the collection — a blue-and-white plate made in England around 1850, and titled “The Tyrant’s Foe” — sets him off on a disquisition about Constitutional rights.

“You have the essence of what’s unique about this nation,” he says, noting the words of the First Amendment emblazoned on the plate. “What do I do? I petition my government for redress of grievances. I assemble. I do so with others. And I speak freely.”

Meanwhile, a tiny cup and saucer commemorating the June 10, 1772, burning of the British schooner HMS Gaspee by Rhode Island colonists leads to Weiman’s vivid recounting of that early revolutionary act.

“I can take one artifact and go through 30 or 40 years of history,” he later says.

It’s not surprising, then, that Weiman’s ambitious plans for his retirement include taking his collection to the American people — literally.

“No one is going to come to Washington to see my collection,” he acknowledges, especially not with the Smithsonian Institution in town. “I can’t compete with them. They got a bigger warehouse, staff and stuff.”

Instead, Weiman says he and Nancy are “exploring” putting aspects of the collection “on rail cars” and touring the nation with it.

“Can you imagine pulling into a town and being greeted by the governor, the mayor, your Congressman or Senator … the school board president? And you stay there maybe a week and you have people go out into the schools, into the social clubs … and basically, you know, promote our democratic form of government.”